The Best (and Worst) Cheap Telephoto Lenses: A review

Picture of a Canada Goose taken with a Tamron telephoto zoom lens.

This is EXACTLY why you need to be careful what telephoto lens you buy. I took this photo with the Tamron 200-500mm lens. The image quality is a disaster (Click to enlarge).

A long telephoto or supertelephoto lens is generally very expensive.  For example, Nikon’s 500mm f/4 lens costs about $8,500.  If you missed it, I wrote a post about a month ago explaining why the “pro” telephoto lenses are so expensive.  Still, photographers want the extra reach of a long zoom lens without needing to sell a kidney or pawn off a first-born child.  The following is my review of the cheapest telephoto zoom lenses on the market.  Certainly, there are other lenses that could fit into this category, but I consider these to be the most popular choices among photographers.

Cheap Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Nikon

Nikon 70-300mm – This $500 lens is actually quite good for the price.  It is sharp, has a convenient zoom range, and includes image stabilization.  This is probably the most popular telephoto zoom in Nikon’s line-up of lenses. You can check the current price of this lens on Amazon here.

Nikon 80-400mm – It has been rumored for two years or more that an update to this lens is imminent, but we haven’t seen it yet.  The Nikon 80-400mm lens is quite outdated.  It is not sharp, slow to auto-focus, and is drastically over-priced.  I rented this lens a little while ago for a shoot in SW Florida, you can see a sample image taken with this lens here.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon here.

Cheap Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Canon

Canon 70-300mm – The Canon 70-300mm is quite similar in terms of quality to the Nikon 70-300mm lens.  This popular telephoto zoom lens offers good image quality at a great price point.  Check the current price on Amazon here.

Canon 75-300mm – This is the perfect lens for new photographers on a budget who still want to be able to zoom in on the action.  At a price of only $150, this is a bargain.  While this lens does not offer image stabilization and the sharpness is nothing more than acceptable, it is a lightweight and inexpensive alternative for Canon photographers who need a bit more zoom.  It’s not much of a photo, but here is an example picture that I took with this lens.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon.

Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens – Like the Nikon 80-400mm lens, this lens is not cheap.  It costs approximately $1,600; however, I included this lens in the list because it is cheap when compared to the pro level telephoto lenses mentioned in the introduction.  This lens is probably the best telephoto lens on this list, though it is also the most expensive.  However, I have found the image quality of this lens to be slightly less than that of other L-series lenses.  This is a push-pull lens, which increases its likelihood of getting dust inside the lens.  Check the current price of this lens on Amazon.

Third-Party Cheap Telephoto Lenses (Generally available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLR cameras)

Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Telephoto Lens – No this isn’t a typo.  This lens and the next lens on this list have similar names, but they are very different lenses.  This lens costs about half what the newer version of this lens costs, but it is still a great lens.  Here’s a link to the Nikon version on Amazon.  Here’s a link to the Canon version on Amazon.

Tamron 200-500mm – I was recently given the opportunity to spend a day testing out lenses with Tamron.  I was very impressed with one or two of their lenses, but this lens was shockingly horrible.  It’s a slow lens, the autofocus was terrible, and the image quality was a pure disaster.  Seriously, I can’t get over how bad this lens was.  I’m not even going to include a link for this one to check the price, because it is so terrible that I wouldn’t wish this lens upon any photographer.

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  • Priscilla Diacont

    I have Tamron200-500. It does. OK. However, it needs to get fixed not due to its fault. I was looking at Tamron 150-600 for Nikken or waiting for the new Sigma. Any comments about this lens.